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For Petaluma teachers, moonlighting pays the bills


After Todd Siders grades the last of his student’s papers and finishes lesson preparation for his social studies classes at Casa Grande High School, he picks up his keys and hits the road for a late night shift as a Lyft driver.

When he’s not teaching or driving for the ride sharing company on Saturdays, the 48-year-old Petaluma resident is juggling several other odds jobs – an increasingly hectic lifestyle, but one he says he needs to maintain to make ends meet while pursuing his passion of educating the city’s youth.

“I had these expectations of what I thought about when I went into the teaching profession,” he said. “I had this belief when I was in my early 20s that when I would be middle aged – when I’d be as bald as I am today – that I’d also get compensation for the lack of looks, that I’d at least be comfortable enough in a career to hang out and chill and come home after a day of teaching … I wouldn’t have to worry or scramble to find the rest of the money I need.”

Siders, who has taught at Casa Grande for 21 years, is among a growing number of educators taking on extra jobs to supplement their income as the cost of living in Petaluma continues to increase, according to Sandra Larsen, president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers union, which represents more than 400 educators.

For Siders, the estimated 60 to 65-hour work weeks come at a cost: he said his relationship with his young son has suffered, he’s still had to borrow from payday loans, he’s “perpetually exhausted” and “less effective” than he would like in his classroom.

“I feel like I’m perpetually one of those starving college students in terms of how I get by,” he said.

According to research from the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, the average teacher’s salary in the district in 2015-16 was $67,736, ranking 16th for compensation among 21 other California districts with similar average daily attendance. Meanwhile, the median income in Petaluma is $77,149, while the median home price is $603,276, according to county data.

“Teachers still have to live a college lifestyle – they can’t afford their own house, and I know a lot that can’t even afford their own apartment,” Larsen said. “It’s getting worse as Sonoma County has gotten so much more expense to live in and the teacher’s salary hasn’t kept up.”

Sten Mander, a science and robotics teacher at Casa Grande, shared the same frustration. He works a “constant” stream of handyman jobs in addition to what he estimates equate to 50 hour work weeks for his teaching job so he can pay his mortgage and support his family. Mander said while he’s expected to learn new programs and tackle classroom initiatives, there is little promise of a salary increase, generating a sense of frustration.

“I don’t see a solution,” Mander, 54, said. “I think the reason is that there’s a giant disconnect between the folks at the district office and the teaching staff.”

The district and the teacher’s union are in the throes of a more than year long process of navigating a new contract since the last agreement expired in June 2016, according to Linda Scheele, assistant superintendent of human resources and lead negotiator.

With that contract, teachers received an overall 5.6 percent base salary increase for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, Superintendent Gary Callahan said. This time around, the teacher’s union is seeking a 4 percent salary bump, though the district is offering no increase.

“Were pretty far apart right now, but we’ll hopefully work it out,” Larsen said.

Callahan said like many others in the state, the district is being hit with an ongoing increase in pension costs — a crippling expense that’s resulted in an ongoing deficit and cuts. Teachers expressed frustration over the district’s financial decisions, though Callahan said the process is “transparent” and he welcomed feedback.

“We have more expenses than revenue coming in,” Callahan said. “We need to deal with that so we can get to the business at hand of providing compensation while at the same time not effecting services for our kids.”

Callahan said he’s heard concerns from teachers and the district aims to “stay competitive” with wages, though Larsen said moving forward, recruiting new teachers will be a challenge.

Across the county, businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain a quality workforce, said Al Lerma, the director of business development and innovation at the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. The board recently surveyed business owners about attracting employees, finding that living costs and lack of affordable housing were possible factors limiting the workforce availably.

“Teachers play an integral part of the local education infrastructure, we certainly want schools to be quality schools with quality instructors and teachers, and part of that is being able to live here and afford to live here,” he said. “If we can’t sustain that in the long run, local school systems may suffer because they’re not able to attract quality teachers because of affordability issues.”

Lesley Pfeiffer, 24, who was hired at Kenilworth Junior High two years ago, is forced to live with her parents in Windsor and commute to Petaluma as she works a summer lifeguarding job to help pay the cost of her student loans.

“It’s so expensive to live around here,” she said.

The vacancy rate in Petaluma’s major apartment complexes hovered just below 2.5 percent as of October 2016, according to a biannual city survey. The average market rate rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,893 a month, spiking up to $2,675 for a three-bedroom home, according to the survey. The Petaluma City Council has made affordable housing one of its priorities for the upcoming year, and recently signaled support for state bills that would help ease the crunch.

Nearly 70 affordable units are also planned as part of approved or pending projects in the city, Deputy Planning Manager Kevin Colin said last month.

Mander and Siders both said they hope for a solution, as both teachers say they’re invested in their community and passionate about their longtime careers.

“The bottom line is that Petaluma is my home,” Siders said. “I’ve been in the community for 20 years. The solution should not be having to leave the place I like to be. The solution is that teachers and civil servants should be able to make enough money to live in the community.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)